By Chrös McDougall | Dec. 11, 2019, 4:05 p.m. (ET)
Lily Zhang receives her Breakthrough Star award at the 2019 ITTF Star Awards on Dec. 11, 2019 in Zhengzhou, China.

 

Following a season that saw Lily Zhang reach the semifinals at the ITTF Women’s World Cup in October, table tennis’ international governing body has named the U.S. Olympian its Breakthrough Star of 2019.

The 23-year-old Zhang, who competed in both the 2012 and ’16 Olympic Games for Team USA, was honored at the ITTF Star Awards on Wednesday in Zhengzhou, China. The ceremony honors the top achievements in the sport from the preceding year, with awards being handed out across seven categories.

Zhang, of Palo Alto, California, is the first American to win a Star Award and only the second Breakthrough Star winner who is not based in Japan.

“Wow, this is very unexpected,” Zhang said in a statement released by the ITTF. “I just want to say thank you so much to everyone who has been supporting me.”

It’s been a year with plenty of highlights for Zhang.

Upon graduating from Cal last year, Zhang moved her home base to Germany this season. In July, she came home to win her fifth U.S. title. Her international results took off from there.

In August, she won a silver medal (women’s doubles) and bronze (women’s team) at the Pan American Games Lima 2019.

One month later, she went four-for-four at the Pan American Championships in Paraguay, winning the women’s singles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles and team titles – making her the first person to win all four in the three-year history of that event.

Then, in October, she really broke out by reaching the semifinals at the Women’s World Cup in Chengdu, China. That marked the first time a player from the U.S. advanced that far in the prestigious tournament – and making it even more noteworthy was that Zhang did so as a wild-card entry.

“It was the best tournament of my life, I have to say, and I think it’s just really encouraging and motivating to me that things like this are possible,” Zhang told TeamUSA.org last month. “If I can reach the semifinals in a World Cup, then why not the world championships or the Olympics ultimately?”

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Though only a recent college grad, Zhang already has a long history of success in her sport.

She made her Olympic debut as a 16-year-old in 2012, and two years later won a bronze medal at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014, which marked the first time an American had medaled in table tennis at an Olympic competition. In October of this year, Zhang also helped Team USA qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Three U.S. women will be on the team, while two of them will also compete individually in Tokyo.

All told, her performances in 2019 helped her move up 69 spots on the world rankings to No. 26 this month, marking her best placement ever.

“I just feel super grateful and super humbled to even be nominated amongst this incredible group of athletes,” Zhang said Wednesday. “It has been just such a rollercoaster of a year. Thank you so much to ITTF and to everyone out there.”

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.